The fact is, we adults dont have much room in our lives for fun and games. Our days are filled with stress, obligations, and hard work. We may be stiff, tired, and easily bored when we try to get on the floor and play with children--especially when it means switching gears from a stressful day of work or household chores. We might be willing to do what they want--like the mom at the outdoor concert, above--but then we get annoyed when they dont play the way we expect or when they demand too much from us.
Others of us may be unable to put aside our competitiveness or our need to be in control. We get bored, cranky, and frustrated; were sore losers; we worry about teaching how to throw the ball correctly when our child just wants to play catch. We complain about childrens short attention spans, but how long can we sit and play marbles or Barbies or Monopoly or fantasy games before we get bored and distracted, or pulled away by the feeling that getting work done or cooking dinner is more important?
When my daughter was in preschool, she made up a great game that helped me be playful instead of shouting at her to hurry up and get ready. One morning she came downstairs, hid behind the doorway, and whispered to me, Pretend that Im still upstairs and that were really gonna be late and youre really mad. So I shouted upstairs, Were late, and I am really mad! and I started storming around and stamping my foot. Meanwhile, she was behind the door giggling, her hand over her mouth. I said, You better get down here, or Im leaving without you. Im going to go by myself to Big Oak Preschool! She started laughing out loud, so I pretended I couldnt hear her. While letting her sneak out ahead of me, I made a big show of leaving the house without her, supposedly not noticing she was there. She got in the car and I pretended I was talking to myself out loud, saying, I am so mad. The teachers are going to say, Where is Emma? And Im going to say, She wasnt ready, so I just left with- out her. She was giggling and giggling and trying not to let on that she was really there. She was making getting ready for preschool fun for me! Pretending to be mad helped me not to be really mad, and playing instead of shouting helped her get ready faster!
Why Children Play
Some children are leaders and some are followers; some prefer fantasy dress up while others are drawn to ball games. But virtually every child has an instinct for play that buds immediately after birth and is in full bloom by the age of two or three. Play is possible anywhere and anytime, a parallel universe of fantasy and imagination that children enter at will. For adults, play means leisure, but for children, play is more like their job. Unlike many of us adults, they usually love their work and seldom want a day off. Play is also childrens main way of communicating, of experimenting, and of learning.
A child who wont or cant play is instantly recognizable as being in significant emotional distress, like an adult who cant work or wont talk. Severely abused and neglected children often have to be taught how to play before they can benefit from play therapy. Why do we consider child labor such an abomination? Because it means children grow up without having a childhood, without play. Its even worse when their labor is exploited so that adults can have more leisure, as depicted in this nineteenth-century poem by Sarah Norcliffe Cleghorn:
The Golf Links Lie So Near the Mill
The golf links lie so near the mill
That almost every day
The laboring children can look out
And watch the men at play.
Excerpted from Playful Parenting by Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D. Copyright 2001 by Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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